The most watched cooking show in the world is not produced in Hollywood. MasterChef India, based in Mumbai, just began its second season on India's Star Plus TV with the highest viewership of any cooking show in the world. Last season's premiere episode reached a whopping thirty million viewers. These are numbers that the fragmented U.S. market can never hope to reach except for massive sporting events like the Super Bowl. The host of the show is New York City's own Vikas Khanna, the Indian-born chef who just received a Michelin star for his innovative work at the Manhattan restaurant, Junoon. This has to be the first case of India outsourcing a television host from the U.S.
Having spent the past five years working with Khanna writing cookbooks like Flavors First and developing the Holy Kitchens films, I have come to understand and appreciate the incredible amount of hard work that goes into arriving at this point. Where he is now is a very long way from his humble beginnings in Amritsar. He stands now on the cusp of international stardom.
All of these competition shows are aspirational in nature. They are selling a dream of instant stardom based on two simple propositions. First is the idea that everyone has a hitherto unrecognized inner star that's just waiting to be discovered. The second is that the competition will do exactly that. Never mind the fact that the vast majority of competition winners are never seen again, Star TV could not have done better than to pick the Amritsar-born Khanna as an object lesson in instant stardom. His road to stardom has been a great deal more lengthy and conventional but no less remarkable.
He learned to cook at his grandmother's side while wearing heavy metal braces to straighten out his crooked legs. It was not until he was a teenager that he was able to run and climb trees with the other children and by then he was already fixed on a life in cooking. The challenges of his early life gave him the determination to prove that he could do anything anyone else could do and he continues to prove it every day. Vikas began his own catering company at the age of seventeen, went on to the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration and trained in the top Indian hotels before immigrating to New York in 2000.
Going from rags to riches is literal in this case. It's the very definition of the American Dream but this time it is taking place in Mumbai, the City of Dreams for the next millennium. The growth of all things Indian has been phenomenal and advertisers everywhere will be watching to gauge Khanna's marketability and crossover appeal. He has plenty of sex appeal and seems a natural fit to be the first Indian chef to gain stardom in both countries. Importantly, Vikas is Punjabi which is where most of Bollywood's leading men come from. They are tall and good looking and Vikas fits the image which is as important on Indian television as it is here in the USA.
For the past eleven years, Vikas Khanna has been in New York City working his way up the ladder of the restaurant scene but always with a larger vision in mind. He works 18 hour days, seven days a week, to realize his vision. The critical recognition has come in increments, slowly building his reputation from his beginnings at the downtown restaurant, Salaam Bombay, until he got his big break with an appearance on Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares in 2007. Other appearances have followed on Bobby Flay's Throwdown and the Martha Stewart Show. With the opening of Junoon and the publication of Flavors First, this year has seen the culmination of all those years of hard work. Where most chefs would see the glowing reviews from the New York Times, Michelin and others as the end of the race, for Vikas Khanna it is only the beginning. His work includes not just a popular restaurant but also extensive charity work, films about spirituality and food, cookbooks and continuing to work with the Café at the Rubin Museum of Art.
The important element that has made all of this possible is discipline. Vikas' mental and physical focus is astonishing. Long after I am exhausted and ready to quit writing for the day, Vikas is eager to continue. There is always something left undone, something more to be researched. Another email to write. It is a constant stream of talking to people, accepting engagements and appearances when he would like to be resting. When Anju Bhargava asked us to cater for her Hindu American Seva Conference at the White House we accepted without hesitation. Exhausting? Emphatically, yes. But this is often the difference between people who have a cookbook ready to publish and the ones who are standing around lamenting the fact that they didn't get a publishing deal.
We make our Holy Kitchens films without any money to budget and do everything ourselves including the research, writing, filming, interviews and editing. If we waited until we got the money to do the films the way they deserve to be done, there would never have been any films at all. The films are not created for the purpose of making money and we give them away to educational institutions. What they do is raise questions about sharing food and how it affects our notions of community. It's our way of saying that there's more to food than restaurants and profits. There are very few people who rise to this level without a lot of hard work.
The interesting thing that is happening here is that Vikas Khanna is transplanting his hard-earned New York success back to India where he is as yet little known. That is about to change drastically with hosting MasterChef India. Carrying a television show is far different from running a restaurant kitchen or being a guest on someone else's show. But once again, Vikas is working 18-hour days to master the stage craft that makes these shows a success. Without drama and compassion, there is no audience for shows like this and the host must always be in position for the cameras to capture the moment. It requires balancing stage and camera awareness with remaining fully engaged with the contestants.
Many eyes will be watching, both here in the U.S. and in India, to see if Vikas Khanna can capture the same ratings gold as the previous host, Bollywood superstar Akshay Kumar. If he can, the future of the MasterChef India franchise will be secure for years to come and I would never bet against one of the hardest working people I know. Eleven years after coming to New York, Vikas Khanna is finally ready for instant stardom.
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